Salon selections savoury after 25 years
“From Russia and Vienna to Toronto with pastries.” Or so read a Toronto Star headline a few years ago.
And it wasn’t wrong. That quasi-James Bondian headline encapsulated the essence of Off Centre, the innovative salon-concert series founded a quarter-century ago by the husband and wife piano team of Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis.
This year’s silver-anniversary season opens a week from Sunday — Oct. 6 at 3 p.m. at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre — with one of its signature events, an annual Schubertiad celebrating the music of the beloved Viennese composer Franz Schubert.
Zarankin and Perkis will, of course, be taking part, along with mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig and the Rosebud String Quartet (the latter a new ensemble of players drawn from the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra).
Later concerts will also feature their daughters Ilana (a soprano who studied with Dawn Upshaw) and Julia, a musicologist with a PhD from Princeton. The Zarankins are nothing if not a musical family.
Moreover, it’s a family from Russia, as that Star headline suggests, where Inna was a schoolmate and piano-fourhands partner of conductor-tobe Valery Gergiev (who would subsequently become an Off Centre honorary patron) and where Boris studied with Regina, sister of the great Vladimir Horowitz.
But as that Star headline also suggests, they immigrated to Canada by way of Austria’s City of Dreams. And it was there, as performers, that they experienced the still-active, centuries-old tradition of salon concerts, in which stomachs as well as ears have to be fed.
That was back in 1978 and they might well have stayed in Vienna, nibbling Demel pastries, had Boris Zarankin’s Edmonton-based uncle not persuaded them that a brighter future awaited in Canada.
Sure enough, after an introductory year and a half in Edmonton, they fell in love with Vancouver (they could read a thermometer, after all), spending seven years in the Pacific metropolis playing recitals, appearing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and teaching before being lured to Toronto by the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Although no longer at the conservatory, they remain active teachers, with much of their performing now focused on the series they inaugurated at a music store in a Markham mall in 1994 (and subsequently transferred to the Arts and Letters Club and Glenn Gould Studio, before taking up residence in the renovated church shared by Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort).
One of the identifying characteristics of the Trinity-St. Paul’s events is the sight of the audience heading, lemminglike, at intermission toward the refreshment hall where carefully chosen Viennese pastries await consumption.
Not that the musical menu isn’t equally tempting. Off Centre concerts always have a theme, one of this season’s programs being built around an exploration of that 19thcentury dance craze known as the waltz, another around the music of Beethoven.
Avid readers and travellers, the Zarankins like to contextualize the music on their programs, using a host to provide background. Alan Walker of McMaster University was the first, the late pianist Stuart Hamilton followed (deciding, at 80, to take Zarankin piano lessons as well), with daughter Julia sometimes filling the role in recent seasons.
Looking back on their 118 concerts, it is easy to find music new to Toronto (even newly scored; they once performed Rossini’s “Petite messe solonelle” with accordionist Joseph Macerollo taking the harmonium part).
“Our biggest challenge as performers,” Inna Perkis says, “is to keep our audience engaged.”
“And when we begin to rehearse with our artists,” her spouse continues, “we don’t yet know the order of the program. We have to discover what works best. This requires trust.”
That holds true on both sides of the footlights. An Off Centre concert is never simply a nice collection of pieces. It is an afternoon of trust and discovery.
Husband-and-wife pianists Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their Off Centre Music Salon.